Indigenous lawyers in Brazil take on Bolsonaro's weakened watchdog

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 14 February 2022 12:00 GMT

Brazilian indigenous people take part during the second march of indigenous women to protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil, September 10, 2021. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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Since far-right Jair Bolsonaro became Brazilian president, critics say the Funai indigenous affairs agency has been dismantling the protections it is meant to uphold

  • Native lands seen as bulwark against Amazon deforestation
  • Indigenous lawyers challenge Funai agency in the courts
  • With Bolsonaro behind in polls, election may bring change

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was meant to be an ally in the fight against Amazon logging and land grabs. But for indigenous lawyer Cristiane Soares Bare, the Brazilian agency in charge of protecting native peoples has become a courtroom adversary.

Since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Bare and other indigenous lawyers have taken legal action repeatedly against the Funai indigenous affairs agency, accusing it of dismantling the protections it was tasked with upholding.

"The very body that should protect us is against us," said Bare, who represents the largest umbrella group for Brazil's Amazon indigenous peoples, COIAB.

But with Bolsonaro trailing in opinion polls ahead of an October election, indigenous advocates are hopeful that years of conflict with Funai could come to an end - allowing them to focus their efforts on loggers and land occupiers.

In the meantime, a Supreme Court ruling this month has vindicated their strategy of fighting the agency's policies with lawsuits.

Judge Luis Roberto Barroso overturned a 2021 decision by Funai to pull back protections from more than 230 indigenous territories that had yet to gain official recognition.

Leaving the territories unprotected could have dire consequences, as secure indigenous lands offer a bulwark against deforestation in the Amazon, a major threat to indigenous groups, biodiversity and the planet's climate, campaigners say.

Bolsonaro has pledged never to sign a presidential decree granting the lands official recognition.

But ruling on a petition filed by indigenous lawyers, the Supreme Court judge said Funai's resolution "may constitute an invitation to invade areas that are known to be coveted by land grabbers and loggers".

Funai said in a statement it was appealing Barroso's decision.

It said requests to protect unrecognized areas were "unreasonable, as these areas, most of which are titled in the name of individuals, are not part of the public patrimony ... since the demarcation procedure has not been completed".

'FEAR, PERSECUTION'

The ruling marked another blow to Funai's image as a defender of indigenous people, which indigenous groups and former agency staff say has been tarnished at home and abroad by a series of reversals during Bolsonaro's three years in power.

Funai employees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation verbal orders to stop assisting non-recognized indigenous communities came in 2019, soon after Bolsonaro appointed federal police detective Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva to head the agency.

A climate of "fear" and "persecution" has existed among staff since then, said Fernando Vianna, president of the INA association of Funai employees.

Funai declined to comment on the allegations.

Since taking office, da Silva has asked police to investigate at least nine of his subordinates for alleged crimes such as obstructing the construction of a power line in indigenous lands, official records show.

He has also reported two indigenous leaders to the police, accusing them of slander.

"Systematically, he started to persecute ... some civil servants," said one of the Funai staff members subjected to a police investigation at da Silva's request.

Agency staff who questioned da Silva's orders to ignore non-recognized indigenous areas were threatened with transfers or were demoted, said the employee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The climate inside the entity has sparked an exodus of experienced staff, further hampering its work, said Antonio Eduardo Cerqueira de Oliveira, executive secretary of the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic Church-linked body.

"(Funai) has some very committed civil servants, but they are under severe threat," he said. "Many are filing for retirement or going on medical leave due to the abuse."

The criticism of Funai echoes similar complaints leveled against Brazil's environment agency Ibama and the Fundacao Cultural Palmares, which is tasked with promoting Black culture, during Bolsonaro's presidency.

PROTAGONISTS

Legal action has so far been the only way to challenge Funai's new policies, but it has not always proved an effective strategy, said Daniel Sarmento, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro's state university (Uerj).

Increasingly short of expertise as employees retire or go on leave, the agency has struggled to implement court orders, Sarmento said, noting that Barroso had repeatedly ordered Funai to resubmit its plan for protecting indigenous peoples during the pandemic.

Setting the stage for more courtroom drama in the run-up to the election, Brazil's top court is also set to rule in a separate land rights case that indigenous advocates see as key to their survival.

A defeat for the indigenous people in the case would set a precedent for the rollback of native rights that Bolsonaro has sought with the backing of powerful farming interests, critics say.

Funai's future direction hinges largely on the outcome of October's presidential ballot. In most recent polls, leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is more than 10 percentage points ahead of Bolsonaro.

If Bolsonaro is voted out, Funai's policies could change, rendering many lawsuits unnecessary, said Paulo Machado Guimaraes, head of the Brazilian National Bar Association's (OAB) special commission to protect indigenous rights.

Bare said that while the relationship between Funai and indigenous peoples has never been free of legal wrangling, a legacy of Bolsonaro's presidency could be a battle-hardened group of indigenous lawyers more willing to go to court.

"The indigenous movement has matured," Bare said. "We need to be protagonists in the fight for our own rights."

Related stories:

Lost 'libraries': Brazil's indigenous people lament COVID deaths of elders

How will Brazil's energy privatization law affect climate change?

Brazil's Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity as Amazon felled

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Helen Popper and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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